I am a South African, born and raised during the difficult dark days of apartheid.
The most tragic story about South Africa is that the church was used to propagate and sustain the policies of segregation.
Even though South Africa had produced awesome leaders who fought for justice, there was still so much wrong about the image of the church.
There were times when Christianity was viewed with suspicion in South Africa. This was before the rise of great church leaders like Desmond Tutu, Alan Boesak, Frank Chikane, Buti Tlhagale, Stanley Mokgoba, Beyers NaudÃ© and many others.
One thing that the old apartheid regime succeeded to do was to keep South Africans from being exposed to the outside world. Many Baptists, including myself, were not exposed to the Baptist family outside the borders of South Africa.
The experience and knowledge about Baptists was limited to my country. There was very limited exposure to theological reflection.
The definition of Baptists was also limited to one context. There were times in those days when I had serious struggles with my identity as a Baptist.
I mentioned above that the old government managed to keep the citizens of South Africa from being exposed to the outside world.
This meant that we were exposed mostly to South African literature. If there was any outside literature, it had to be approved by the state. Some of the literature that was banned by the old South African government included any writings by Martin Luther King Jr.
During those days, it was not that easy for most of us in South Africa to publicly affirm our Baptist identity. We were dominated on all fronts by the mainline churches (Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans and Catholics), Pentecostals and Charismatic churches.
Worst of all, there were times when Baptists were not part of any ecumenical body in South Africa.
The evangelical church in South Africa was seen as very irrelevant and, at times, as part of the government system. This was disheartening, and it hampered our witness.
My first exposure to the Baptist World Alliance blew my mind. My former knowledge of who Baptists were was revealed to be inaccurate.
First, I came to know that we are a big family not just a sect that is trying to survive.
I was so overwhelmed by the realization that the Baptist church has reached all over the world. Even though I had read the history of missions, I had never met Baptists from all over the world.
My first general council in Durban, South Africa, in 1998 was a joyful experience.
By that time, I had already been told about the worldwide family of Baptists, and at the general council I met the representatives of this great movement of Baptists.
I joined the commission on Baptist Heritage immediately. It was encouraging to learn that Baptists have been champions for justice and human rights.
The frustration of being associated with a church that could not respond to social justice issues was over. It gave me a new identity of who the Baptists are.
The BWA helped me to deepen and expand my understanding about the Baptist identity. This was like the beginning of another part of my Christian journey.
My Baptist roots started to grow deeper. The BWA became a place of learning from a wealth of Baptists’ experiences from all over the world.
The BWA is a unique movement that is able to bring the wealth of Baptist experiences from all over the world into one space.
It is unique in the sense that it is not a limited segment of the family but a space where we meet as the full family, the young and the senior, the lay and the clergy.
The affirmation that I received in the BWA family has helped me to grow in my Christian life. I was nurtured within a difficult system where I needed to fight for acceptance and recognition, but in the BWA I was welcomed and affirmed. This is what every believer needs.
I have seen God using the BWA to build and nurture me and all who have become part of this family. There are many Baptists who come from difficult situations, worse than mine. They need to be encouraged and affirmed by people who share their faith.
The BWA provides the space to share your witness and listen to the witnesses of others. Such exposure stretches our horizon to see far beyond our situation. It helps us to know how to pray for one another.
Personally, I would have not been where I am today if it was not for the BWA family. This is not my testimony alone but it is a testimony of many. God has used the BWA to nurture and develop many Christians in the world.
I, therefore, take this opportunity to invite you and your church to come along and be part of God’s movement through the BWA. Come and become part of this family.
For the BWA to continue existing and impacting the lives of many in the world, it needs you to become part of the family, to pray for the BWA and to give financial support.
Participating in the upcoming BWA Day on Feb. 4-5 is one way to become involved.
There is still much work to be done, and there are many people who will be impacted by the mission of the BWA.
Paul Msiza is pastor of Peniel-Salem Baptist Church in Pretoria, South Africa, and the Baptist World Alliance president for 2015-20.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles about the Baptist World Alliance, informing churches about the BWA and encouraging participation in the annual BWA Day observance to be held on Feb. 4-5 in 2017.